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2010 Christmas BakingI spent much of last week preparing bags and tins of cookies and giving them away. My Christmas baking is pretty traditional. I make a bunch of cookies that are typical for the season in Switzerland and other parts of Europe. Some recipes are hundreds of years old! Except for one: Thomas Haas’s Chocolate Sparkle Cookie.

Thomas Haas's Chocolate Sparkle CookiesThomas Haas is a fourth generation pastry chef from Germany who set up shop in Vancouver. Around 2002, he created the Chocolate Sparkle Cookie, which became all the rage in Vancouver and beyond. My mom always has her ear to the ground for this kind of thing, and she is the one who introduced me to the cookie. A delicious introduction indeed!

The Chocolate Sparkle Cookie is crisp on the outside, densely moist inside, and seriously chocolatey. What I like most about the cookie though, is how it lends itself to other flavourings. Thomas Haas himself did a chocolate-garam masala version using Vij’s, the well-known Vancouver restaurateur for inspired Indian food, garam masala mix. And there are so many other possible combinations:

  • chocolate-ginger using ground and crystallized ginger;
  • chocolate-spice flavoured with cinnamon and cardamom;
  • chocolate-orange using orange zest and a touch of Grand Marnier, decorated with some julienned candied orange peel;
  • chocolate-hazelnut made with freshly roasted ground hazelnuts in place of the almonds;
  • “smokey hot chocolate” flavoured with cayenne and a touch of chipotle;
  • chocolate-mint using mint flavouring or maybe crushed candy cane;
  • ….

I’m not sure yet if the Chocolate Sparkle Cookie falls into the non-traditional cookie category or is simply a new tradition. What I do know is that it’s one of the most popular cookies I bake every year!

Recipe: Chocolate Sparkle Cookies

This cookie was created by Thomas Haas. He shared the recipe with the L.A. Times. It was subsequently reprinted in Western Living’s March 2004 issue. The dough must be refrigerated overnight. Makes approx. 36 cookies. This recipe is gluten-free!

1/2 lb (225 g) bittersweet chocolate
3 tbsp (45 mL) butter, room temperature, cut into small pieces
2 eggs
1 tbsp (15 mL) honey, preferably blackberry
1/3 cup (75 mL) sugar, plus more for rolling
3/4 cup (175 mL) ground almonds
2 tsp (10 mL) cocoa powder
Pinch of salt
Powdered icing sugar, for garnish

Chocolate Sparkle Cookie dough after chilling overnight.

Ready to roll! Chocolate Sparkle Cookie dough after chilling overnight. A small ice cream scoop would probably work well to portion the balls.

Rolling the Chocolate Sparkle Cookies in sugar.

Rolling the Chocolate Sparkle Cookies in sugar. Work quickly! The warmer the dough, the stickier and more difficult to manage it gets.

Combine the ground almonds, cocoa powder and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

Melt the chocolate on top of a double boiler, over (but not in contact with) simmering water. Remove from heat. Mix butter pieces into the heated chocolate and stir until melted.

Beat eggs with electric mixer, gradually adding the honey and sugar until light and the mixture falls in thick, smooth ribbons from the beaters (5-10 minutes). Fold egg mixture into chocolate-butter mixture. Gently add the ground almond mixture to the chocolate mixture. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 325° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Form the dough into 1-inch (2.5 cm) balls. Working quickly, roll the balls in granulated sugar. Place on sheet about 2 inches (5 cm) apart. Bake for 12 minutes, until the cookies begin to crack and the centres are moist but not wet. Cool slightly. Dust lightly with powdered icing sugar.

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Elisenlebkuchen are a hearty German gingerbread made of ground nuts, candied citrus peel and spices, then covered in dark chocolate once baked.I think I fell in love with Elisenlebkuchen, a hearty German gingerbread originally from the city of Nürnberg, when I was a kid.

Every year for seven years, I looked forward to my German school’s annual Christmas concert, because I would get an Elisenlebkuchen. When I was living in Switzerland, the Christmas markets gave me the opportunity to eat one of my holiday favourites again. Finally last year, for the first time, I tried a recipe for Elisenlebkuchen I’d tucked away many years ago. I was thrilled to make myself this specialty made of ground nuts, candied citrus peel, and spices, baked on a wafer, then covered in chocolate.

Elisenlebkuchen are now on my holiday must-bake list!

Recipe: Elisenlebkuchen

Quantities in weight – scale required. The dough must be refrigerated overnight. Yes, the finicky process of tempering chocolate for the coating is worth it! Makes approx 36 6 cm Ø pieces.

3 eggs
150 g sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp ground coriander
3/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground cloves
5 drops bitter almond oil
zest of 1 lemon
2 tsp lemon juice
100 g ground (fine meal) almonds
100 g ground (fine meal) hazelnuts
100 g ground (fine meal) walnuts
100 g candied orange peel, finely chopped
100 g candied lemon peel, finely chopped
6 cm Ø circular baking wafers (Back-Oblaten) – in Ottawa, I find these at Swiss Pastries (Carlingwood mall)

Coating:
approx. 300 g dark chocolate

In a bowl, beat the eggs until light. Add sugar and continue beating until the sugar is dissolved. Mix in spices, lemon zest and lemon juice. Fold in ground nuts and chopped candied citrus peel. Cover the mixture and refrigerate overnight.

Spreading the Lebkuchen dough on circular baking wafers.Preheat oven to 300° F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

Spread the mixture onto the baking wafers leaving free 2 mm around the edge of the wafer. Place on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake 30-35 minutes until lightly browned. Cool. Coat with dark chocolate.

I find that David Lebovitz’s instructions for tempering chocolate are the clearest and easiest. What I’ve learned is that chocolate heats very quickly and cools slowly. Next year, I’m going to turn off the heat for my water bath once the water is hot in the hopes that I’ll have better control. Best to use a digital thermometer. Once the chocolate is ready, hold the Elisenlebkuchen upside-down and dunk them into the chocolate. Place them on a wire rack and allow chocolate to harden.

An alternative to the chocolate would be to decorate the tops with blanched almonds or other nuts before baking.

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Quebec City's German Christmas Market under a blanket of snowCute little wood huts decorated with lights, pine and fir. Snowflakes. Cobblestone streets and old buildings. Voices coming together in festive song. Warm aromas of Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and other traditional specialties. Christmas crafts, handmade gifts and artisan wares. Laughter. Happy people. The German Christmas market in Quebec City is the perfect prelude to the holiday season.

Cute Santa decorations made by members of the church to support Quebec City's less fortunateMy long-time friend, Susy, is one of the organizers of this Christmas market. It started three years ago when she and several other Germans and German-Canadians sought to recreate in Quebec City the beautiful Christmas markets common to many central European countries. The first year they attracted over 1000 people to their stands in a community centre (the expectation was 200).

Lights, laughter and traditional treats at Quebec City's German Christmas MarketOne of many happy shoppers at the German Christmas MarketEncouraged by this initial success and the apparent interest from the community, they created the Communauté Allemande Québec and started organizing the event for year two. They had wood huts built for the vendors and moved the market to the courtyard of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, a beautiful location just across from the Château Frontenac. The second year attracted over 20,000 visitors.

Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus carved of wood

Saint Nicholas and Santa Claus carved of wood

Chocolate Santa moulds

Chocolate Santa moulds.

This year, the market was extended to two weekends (December 3, 4, 5, and 10, 11, 12). They also increased the number of vendors and added a series of Christmas concerts to the festivities. The numbers for year three look promising, proving that the marché de Noël allemand has become a popular event on Quebec City’s Christmas calendar. Needless to say, I’m proud of Susy’s achievements!

Selling pretzels and German sweets at the German Christmas Market

Yummy pretzels and traditional German baking.

German gingerbread

German gingerbread in pretty shapes and natural decorations.

Volunteering at the market allowed me to spend time with Susy, be a part of this great event and soak up the festive ambiance. Of course, I also enjoyed checking out the different foods being offered! In addition to the Glühwein, there were sausages, pretzels, German Christmas cookies, Nürnberger Lebkuchen (German gingerbread), baked apples, roasted chestnuts, crepes, Apfelbrot (a hearty bread with apples, hazelnuts and spices) and Stollen (a candied fruit and nut-filled buttery yeast bread). Yum!

Selling traditional German Lebkuchen (gingerbread)

These ladies were busy throughout the day and evening selling Lebkuchen, traditional German gingerbread.

Susy and me at the German Christmas Market

My friend Susy, one of the market's organizers, and me at the German Christmas Market's info booth.

I’ve learned there are European-style Christmas markets in quite a few towns in Quebec. However, the Communauté Allemande Québec‘s German Christmas market is extra special: an incomparable setting in Vieux-Quebec, an authentic German Christmas market atmosphere, and a delightful mix of craft and culture. It reminded me of Christmas markets I’ve visited in Europe.

Christmas market in Colmar, France

Christmas market in Colmar, France. It takes up the entire city!

On a different note, I have to add that while we were in Quebec City, we had an exceptional dinner at Le clocher penché, a little bistro in the Saint-Roch neighbourhood. The food was fresh, seasonal, and locally sourced. The service was professional and friendly. The ambiance was charming and upbeat.

Quebec City's Le clocher penché bistroTo start, I had homemade faisselle, a creamy yet light fresh cheese made of cow’s milk just firm enough to keep its shape – out.of.this.world – followed by melt-in-your-mouth pork cooked sous-vide for two days accompanied by a mix of wild rice, squash and bok choy which added tasty texture to the dish. Meanwhile, David had marrow bone as an appetizer, and, as a main course, delicately flavoured boudin noir on a sublime parsnip puree with lightly sauteed apples served with a salad of fennel and apple, a crunchy contrast to the boudin. Delicious!

Bar at Le clocher penché

The bar at Le clocher penché. Note the pictures hanging above the bar -- portraits of their local farmer-producer-suppliers.

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PfeffernuessePfeffernüsse were not part of my mom’s Christmas cookie repertoire. Yet, Pfeffernüsse are among my favourite Christmas cookies.

Every year, I would eagerly anticipate receiving a tin of Christmas cookies from Trudi, a dear family friend. There were a lot of different cookies in that tin, but I always sought out the Pfeffernüsse. They were crunchy on the outside, tender on the inside, pleasantly peppery, with citrus-y and toasty goodness. There are a lot of Pfeffernüsse recipes out there, but in my opinion, none are as good as Trudi’s. I was delighted when she gave me her recipe.

I haven’t had the opportunity to see Trudi and her husband Walter in a long time – there are several provinces between us – but I think of her every year when I make them. I hope she still making them and enjoying them in good health.

Today I’m sharing this recipe at my mom’s request. Usually I’m the one getting cooking and baking tips from her. It’s rare to have it the other way around!

Recipe: Trudi’s Pfeffernüsse (“Peppernuts”)

Pfeffernuesse, ready to bake, after drying overnight

Pfeffernüsse, ready to bake, after drying overnight. Letting them dry makes the outside crunchier, while the inside stays tender. I made a double recipe!

Quantities in weight – scale required! This is the original recipe with my modifications in brackets. I’m a fan of spices, almonds and candied citrus peel, so I increase those quantities and reduce the sugar a little. These cookies have to dry overnight. Makes approx. 40 cookies.

2 large eggs
220 g sugar (180 g)
220 g flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 pinch ground cloves (1/4 tsp)
1 pinch ground white pepper (1/4 tsp… I’ve even put in up to 1/2 tsp, then you can really taste the pepper!)
75 g almonds, chopped (125 g)
30 g candied lemon peel, chopped (50 g)
30 g candied orange peel, chopped (50 g)

Glaze:
100 g icing sugar
1-2 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350° F. Prepare baking sheets (line with parchment paper).

Combine flour, baking powder and spices in a bowl. Set aside. Chop almonds and candied citrus peel.

Using a standing or hand mixer, beat eggs until light and airy. Add sugar and continue beating until the mixture forms a thick ribbon. Gently mix in flour, then the chopped almonds and candied citrus peel.

Form small balls with the dough and place them on the baking tray. The dough is still pretty moist, so I keep some flour nearby and dust my hands before making each ball. Allow to dry overnight or 12 hours.

Prepare glaze before baking. Mix lemon juice into icing sugar one tablespoon at a time. If necessary, add more lemon juice one teaspoon at a time to achieve the right consistency. The glaze should be very thick.

Bake cookies 15-20 minutes or until golden brown.

Glazing Pfeffernuesse

Twirl and swirl the cookies in the glaze while they are still hot to get a textured glaze. I've never had any luck with brushes or the like; the glaze is too thick.

Glaze the cookies as soon as they come out of the oven. The glaze is too thick to use a brush, so I just use my fingers to twirl the cookies upside down in the glaze. Set on a wire rack to cool. The glaze will harden as the cookies cool.

Store in an airtight container.

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Get out the cookie cutters! Making Mailaenderli -- Switzerland's most popular Christmas cookie, a kind of "Swiss shortbread" -- is easy and fun.

Mailänderli milanais in French or, literally, “little milano” in English – is the most popular Swiss Christmas cookie. It’s an egg-enriched shortbread with a hint of lemon. Fun (get out the cookie cutters!), easy to make, and good keepers, they’re among the first Christmas cookies I make.

Cutting out Mailaenderli

I started planning my Christmas baking mid-November after realizing that with my ambitious plan of making more than 12 kinds of cookies, I’d need to be pretty organized! Luckily last year I created a spreadsheet with all the cookie ingredients, so preparing the shopping list was a snap.

I bought everything last Saturday and dedicated Sunday to baking Mailänderli and honey gingerbread. I made some Nuts & Bolts too! Meanwhile David made Stollen (a buttery yeast bread with candied fruit, almonds, raisins and currants) and prepped the ingredients for Basler Leckerli (cookie with spices, candied peel and almonds, a specialty from the city of Basel).

The house was warm and the aromas delicious. I like this time of year! Made with love, I look forward to sharing the cookies with family and friends.

Mailaenderli, almost ready to bake

Mailänderli, almost ready to bake. Just missing the egg wash.

Recipe: Mailänderli (Swiss Shortbread)

Quantities in weight – scale required!

250 g butter
250 g sugar
3 eggs + 1 egg yolk (for egg wash, keep separate!)
1 lemon, zest only
500 g flour

Preheat oven to 350° F. Prepare baking sheets (line with parchment paper).

Using a standing or hand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and make sure everything is well combined. Add the 3 eggs, incorporate on low speed, then beat on higher speed until mixture is light and homogeneous. Mix in lemon zest, and finally the flour.

Gather the dough together. Flatten into a disk and place in fridge for two hours.

Dust counter with flour. Roll out dough to 8 mm thickness. (Yes, the Swiss are very exact! I think the main thing is not to make them too thin.) Cut out cookies using cookie cutters. Place on baking sheet.

In a bowl, prepare the egg wash by lightly beating the egg yolk and diluting with a bit of water or milk. Brush cookies with egg wash. Bake 8-10 minutes or until golden.

Cool. Store in an airtight container. Makes lots of cookies!

Mailaenderli in all shapes

Mailänderli in all shapes.

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Freezer inventory

This how we keep track of what's in the freezer.

The contents of my freezer, exposed. In this selection: apricots, sour cherries, blueberries, elderberries, cherry tomatoes, tomato sauce, roasted red pepper sauce, vegetarian lentil chili, ...

In addition to the chopped parsley and herbs, I have a whole bunch of other things in the freezer. Mostly vegetables from the summer when there were plenty, but also soups and other prepared foods made between the harvest and now. A magnetic white board helps us maintain an inventory of the freezer contents, so we make sure to use what we’ve frozen before the next summer and the opportunity to replenish comes around.

One of my unanticipated favourite freezer items this year is whole frozen tomatoes. I never considered freezing whole tomatoes before, but we were on vacation when many of them ripened – amateur gardener’s mistake – so my mother-in-law just put them in bags and popped them in the freezer. She figured we’d use them to make tomato sauce when we got back. Instead, we just kept them and have been using them whenever a recipe for a hot dish calls for fresh tomato. I refuse to buy fresh tomatoes in the winter for two reasons: I aim to eat what is in season (although I admit to making some exceptions) and the flavour just isn’t the same as when they are their peak, so why choose to eat something that tastes mediocre?

Having these frozen tomatoes on hand has unexpectedly opened the door to recipes I usually don’t make in the winter.  Also, I’m able to make some Asian recipes that combine tomatoes with other ingredients that aren’t in season when tomatoes are. A bonus is that the skins remove easily once the tomatoes are lightly thawed.

Recently we made penne with spicy sausage paprika sauce (I’ve had this recipe in my repertoire since I was a teenager. I’m pretty sure it was once published in Gourmet magazine’s “You asked for it” column and comes from Loews Hotel in Santa Monica), spaghetti puttanesca with cherry tomato sauce, a simple tomato and mango curry, and an absolutely stunning tomato and ginger soup*. The latter two recipes are from Vij’s cookbook; Vij’s is Vancouver’s renowned “inspired Indian” restaurant. On the frozen tomato cooking agenda is a Vietnamese tomato and pineapple soup. Can’t wait!

*When we made this recipe, we chose the curry leaf and ginger combination, i.e. we left out the coriander and garlic. We took the tomatoes out of the freezer and let them thaw a little before removing the skins, which slip off easily. Then we cut them into large chunks and put them in a food processor and processed them until they had a sorbet-like texture (essentially frozen, unconcentrated tomato puree). Finally we added them to the rest of the ingredients as per the recipe. The only other improvement I suggest on the original recipe, is to make it a day in advance and let it sit, chilled, overnight to allow the flavours to meld. The next day, pour the soup through a medium-meshed sieve to remove the small pieces of ginger, curry leaves and the tomato seeds. The result is a smooth soup that packs a punch of flavour!

[I have to add a note here. I’m new to blogging and am still trying to figure out the best way to do things. One of my questions is whether to integrate my recipes directly into my post or post them separately and link to them. Then, out of curiosity, I searched the dishes mentioned above. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to find 3 out of 4 on the Internet already. However, I was somewhat dismayed that some didn’t provide the source, even though they were copied word for word. Having made this discovery, I’ve decided that I will link to the web, whenever a recipe is already available. For those recipes that aren’t, I will post them separately, including the source when applicable, and simply link to them.]

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Winter Gardening

It’s January. My garden is covered in snow. It seemed strange to me to launch a blog that would also be about gardening in the middle of winter. It doesn’t look like there’s much life out there. And since the City of Ottawa started its green bin composting program, I don’t need to wander out to my compost heap at the back of the garden either. The backyard landscape is only occasionally punctuated by rabbit or squirrel tracks (and David’s Weber barbecue which he’ll fire up regardless of the outside temperature).

Winter garden

Backyard under the snow, with animal tracks

Leave it to the rabbit to find some life though! It dug down to the celery we didn’t pull out at the end of fall, stripped the outer layer of bark off of a young Italian prune tree, and chewed through some honeysuckle vines. Concerned about the tree since I’ve heard of friends losing theirs to rabbit-inflicted damage, I was forced out of the house and into the snow to, hopefully, rescue the tree and the vine by wrapping them in burlap and creating a chicken wire fence around them. I’ll find out in spring if this little bit of TLC made a difference.

So, aside from protecting plants from the urban wildlife, what’s there to do in winter with a snow-covered garden?

I recently got a seed catalogue from William Dam Seeds, where I’d bought some black salsify, golden beet and mache (also known as corn or lambs lettuce) seeds last spring. Browsing the catalogue got me thinking about last year – what grew well (Swiss chard, pole beans, arugula) and what didn’t (fava beans, fennel, kohlrabi) – and what I want to plant in spring. It’s pretty impressive to see the variety of plants I could grow – how about edible soybeans (edamame)?! – and, when I think back to last summer, amazing how much even just a small garden can yield. These days, we’re eating food we preserved and froze when the grass was green and the earth warm.

One of my favourite things to have on hand is frozen herbs. I cut off a huge bunch of flat leaf parsley, wash it, dry it and chop it. Stored in plastic containers, it freezes perfectly and I can take as much as I need to add colour, flavour and vitamins to my cooking in the winter. I also make a mix of chopped oregano, marjoram, thyme and parsley. And basil? I just freeze the whole leaves in a bag and crush them once they’re frozen. Meanwhile, I discovered the thyme is naturally freeze-dried. Just the other day I dug up a couple of sprigs from under the snow next to the house for flavouring a split pea soup. So not only the rabbit gets something out of the garden in the winter!

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